While Karl Fallenius is a fan of what he calls “stoner metal music,” opening Owlbear Barbecue, his highly anticipated brick-and-mortar location in RiNo, has had all the ups and downs of a hardcore country western song. Loyal fans of Fallenius’ food truck of the same name, formerly parked at Finn’s Manor, have waited two years for Fallenius to open this spot, while the pitmaster endured a puzzling city permitting process, a vandalized smoker, sub-contractor and hiring challenges, and even a few opening weekend glitches. Oh, and add to all that Fallenius become a parent…with the joy and sleep deprivation that entails. Some might say it’s a miracle that Owlbear has made it this far.
But open Owlbear is, and the 18-seat, counter-service restaurant, located next door to Our Mutual Friend Brewing on Larimer Street, revives much from Owlbear’s food truck menu. The meat selection includes beef brisket, pork spareribs, pulled pork shoulder, and succulent medallions of pork tenderloin, all smoked over locally sourced Gambel oak. The brisket is the star—as it should be from someone who apprenticed under legendary pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Austin, Texas. Fallenius seasons the brisket with a base spice rub made of brown sugar, coffee grounds, and salt (he adds varying additional spices to that base rub for his other cuts), and it’s served two ways: sliced from your choice of the lean or “moist” (aka fatty) portions, or chopped fine.
The chopped version comes topped with a tangy house barbecue sauce, the recipe for which Fallenius is still tweaking, and that’s the only way you’ll see that sauce served—Fallenius has strong feelings about barbecue sauce. “Sauce covers up our work,” he says. “If you need sauce, we didn’t cook it right.” (That said, sauce is, of course, available upon request.)
In addition to those meaty standards, Owlbear surprises with its array of vegetarian and vegan items, including lightly smoked portobello mushroom caps and jackfruit. “I wanted to create a place where everyone feels welcome,” Fallenius says. Even the side dishes are meat-free, a rarity at most barbecue joints. There’s a vinegary cucumber salad, cabbage-and-carrot coleslaw, potato salad, creamy pinto beans, and a glorious macaroni and cheese. For the latter, Fallenius has tweaked his mother’s recipe, blending fontina, gorgonzola, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses; baking them with rigatoni; finishing the casserole on the smoker; and topping it with paprika before serving.
There are no desserts on the menu just yet, but that will change soon, and other coming menu attractions include pork belly, pulled duck, and a custom-made, Czech-style sausage crafted by Denver’s River Bear American Meats.
It’s a smoky song of revival, with a delicious happy ending.
If you go: 2826 Larimer St., 11 a.m. until sell-out, Thursday through Sunday. You can dine in or take your food to go, including bringing it over to Our Mutual Friend Brewing (as long as you buy a beer there to go with it).